From ‘Social Practice’ to Post-Independence: Remembering the Worlds of Independent Film
Rogue Reels: Oppositional Film in Britain, 1945-90.
London: British Film Institute, 1999.
ISBN 0851707270 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by British Film Institute)
Uploaded 1 March 2001
The independent or oppositional film movement in Britain has made a relatively minor appearance in the world of academic publishing despite generating a profusion of internal position papers, policy documents and polemics over the years. Margaret Dickinson’s book, Rogue Reels, makes a valuable contribution to the process of recovering and examining the history of this movement with a focus on the second half of the twentieth century.
The book is perhaps best seen in the context of other available materials. Two of the standard British cinema history collections (Vincent Porter and James Curran’s British Cinema History (1983), and Charles Barr’s All Our Yesterdays (1986)) contain essays which reflect on aspects of independence both before and after the Second World War. Detailed work on the radical or workers’ film movements of the 1930s is to be found in Don McPherson’s collection of commissioned essays and reprinted original documents, Traditions of Independence (1980). And this material is richly supplemented by other studies of the inter-war years including Bert Hogenkamp’s Deadly Parallels: Film and the Left in Britain 1929-39 (1986), Stephen Jones’ The British Labour Movement and Film, 1918-1939 (1987) and Alan Burton’s study The People’s Cinema: Film and the Co-operative Movement (1994). More recently Bert Hogenkamp has filled in some of the gaps in our knowledge of the post-war period with Film, Television and the Left 1950-1970 (2000). And books by Al Rees, David Curtis and Mike O’Pray have offered detailed accounts of a variety of avant-garde practices.
During the half century between 1930 and 1980 – the ‘growing-up years’ that followed the attainment of universal adult suffrage – the concept of ‘independence’ in British film culture tended, perhaps paradoxically, to be reserved for work with a relatively clear and left-leaning political focus. It is this focus which is captured by Dickinson’s use of the term ‘oppositional’. Thus ‘rogue reels’, with the possible exception of avant-garde work, have been politically left of centre. The ‘social practice’ of oppositional film has taken for granted the social welfare gains of European social democracy and has sought cultural alternatives to American cultural supremacism and the philosophy and practice of free market capitalism. Additionally, and in the last part of this period, the conception of cultural politics and of political emancipation has been extended to address issues of colonisation and its effects, of racism, sexism and homophobia.
If the ‘oppositional’ film-makers of the 1970s and 80s were broadly left of centre, this in itself says little about the style or means of communication – the language of film – which they adopted. By the early 1970s with the recovery of modernist principles and their application to cinema, and with a renewal of interest in the work of the Russian formalists who had revived the famous biblical exhortation not to pour new wine into old bottles, a new counter-common-sense emerged in the dictum that a radical content required a radical form. By 1974 the Independent Film-makers Association (IFA) was born out of an uneasy accommodation between those who believed themselves to be part of either a political or an aesthetic avant-garde, and much of the rhetorical work of institution building was designed to bring about a rapprochement between the two wings of the movement. All of this is vividly mapped in the central ‘Texts and Documents’ section of Rogue Reels and in its concluding collection of ‘Oral Histories’.
In what in Britain we can now call the ‘pre-Thatcher’ and ‘pre-Channel 4’ period, we find among the oppositional film-makers a general hostility towards television co-existing with an attachment to the values and interests of the British labour and trade union movements on the one hand and, to the values of formal radicalism and the aesthetic avant-garde on the other. It is the tension between formal and political radicalism that generated much of the heat though perhaps not very much of the light in the often intense internal debates of the independent movement during the 1970s, prior to the advent of the first Thatcher government at the end of this decade.
During the 1980s the term ‘independent’ began to be associated with what the competition theorists of the Thatcher revolution advocated as the improved economic practice of sub-contracting (this, it was argued, would reduce production costs through intensified competition). In the audio-visual field this meant that the casualisation of labour already common in the film industry began to be applied in the field of broadcasting, with large broadcasters sub-contracting the production of programmes, out-of-house, to relatively small production companies. And so a new concept of ‘independent production’ was born. For its advocates, this new form of out-of-house production was a means for introducing stimulating and challenging ideas into the world of television, and for avoiding the iron grip of departmental heads and channel controllers. Things look rather different now. But the important point, for this brief historical account, is that the old meaning of independence was overlaid by new ideologies, new practices and new trade bodies. A different sort of paradox emerges here from the one already identified which had linked the word ‘independent’ to left-wing ideology in the field of film.
By 1982 with the advent of the new fourth television channel, the term independent came to denote a new and casualised mode of production. So strong were the cultural and economic forces at work that the advocates of this sort of independence succeeding in applying the new methods (and independent quotas) to all British terrestrial channels. And the concept of an independent quota was also gloriously transmogrified into the rule-making of European Union directives.
Channel 4, which established a Department for Independent Film and Video, rooted in the pre-Thatcher concept of independence, also found itself at the cutting edge in the creation of this new independent and sub-contracted sector. It is this break in a fifty- year-old use of the term that now makes it difficult to associate the words ‘independent’ and ‘oppositional’ and may explain the avoidance of the term in the sub-titling of Margaret Dickinson’s book.
The book itself is organised according to the best principles of interactivity or ‘feedback’ as advocated by the radical film-makers of the 1970s with their admirable though not always transparent call for a ‘cinema of social practice’ where the ‘meaning-making loop’ initiated by the film-maker was to be completed by an active and critical audience. In the first part of the book Dickinson offers a series of four brief historical essays covering the period from 1945 to 1990. These essays provide a useful framework of events, ideas and political histories which contextualise the intellectual and creative work of the film-makers. And while her own judgements and shaping definitions are certainly present, the main purpose of Part I of the book is perhaps to assist readers from another era in getting ‘up to speed’ with history. There is a recognition here that some readers will need to ‘run fast’ in order to catch up with the past, and to be in a position to make some kind of sense of the forces, interests and beliefs that impelled a generation of practitioners who sought to change the conditions of existence of their own practice through a process of collective and self-critical reflection upon that practice.
Part II of the book consists of a collection of 26 original documents mainly drawn from the 1970s and 1980s. This section – along with the seven oral history interviews which make up Part III of the book – are most open to the agenda-setting of the reader, offering rich material for those who go hunting in the past, armed with their own hypotheses and priorities. The interviews were all conducted by Dickinson and constitute perhaps the most original part of the book, ranging across the work of two distribution companies and five production companies while also making the point that the sort of commodity-based reification which separates production, distribution and exhibition within the film and television industries can and has been questioned by practitioners who aspire to a more direct relationship with their audiences. All seven groups, in pursuit of the goal of an ‘integrated’ or ‘social practice’ were also involved in distribution and exhibition. And so, like the Diggers and Levelers of the seventeenth century we may find in their seemingly strange practices and preoccupations some profound link with our contemporary concerns about the role of public image-making in the development of democracies.
Margaret Dickinson’s book is both an open and engaging invitation to those wishing to explore some of the by-ways of our recent audio-visual past whether driven by historical curiosity or by a desire to understand and make changes in the audio-visual and internet culture of the present.